Benchmarks and Bickering: Where Are Dems on Iraqi Security?

With the administration's progress report indicating little progress by the Iraqi government and an intelligence assessment judging al Qaeda to be at its strongest operational level since just before 9/11, Senate Democratic leaders Thursday assailed President Bush's strategy in Iraq and pushed for Democratic legislation to withdraw U.S. troops.

But under questioning from ABC News, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., refused to discuss whether the United States had a moral obligation to secure the country for Iraqis or even answer questions as to whether withdrawing troops would make the country safer for the tens of millions of Iraqis who live in the country today.

Nonetheless, the Democrats heralded a U.S. troop withdrawal bill offered by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Carl Levin, D-Mich. Noting that three Republicans have so far committed to voting for the Reed-Levin bill and that others may follow, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said, "The problem is while we're waiting for the Republican senators to build up their political courage, the casualties are building up in Iraq."

Benchmarks Not Met

"The news of this week has proven several things," said Reid. "The report from the president confirmed what many have suspected. The war in Iraq is headed in a dangerous direction and the wrong direction, of course. The Iraqi government has not met a single political benchmark in its entirety ... and these are benchmarks that they set for themselves. Iraqi security forces continue to lag well behind expectations. Our courageous troops continue to bear the full burden of securing and rebuilding Iraq while Iraq's factions fight a deadly civil war that engulfs our own troops."

"Today the White House report is a huge disappointment," added Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "The Iraqi government is clearly not making enough progress. Violence is not going to end in Iraq until the Iraqis themselves take responsibility for their country."

Murray referenced a story in the Tacoma News-Tribune that mentioned a husband and wife about to be redeployed to Iraq for the second time, leaving behind their 4-month-old child.

"There are too many people bearing the burden of the war in Iraq, and there are not enough senators willing to stand up and face this president and say, 'enough is enough.," Murray said.

Al Qaeda Stronger

Reid also said that "new intelligence assessments conclude al Qaeda is growing stronger. But while Osama bin Laden is operating freely, we understand, in the Afghan-Pakistan border, the president wants to keep our troops in an open-ended war, a civil war in Iraq."

Earlier today, President Bush said that "Because of the actions we have taken, al Qaeda is weaker today than they would have been."

Reid noted that that contradicts the intelligence report. "They can't have it both ways," he said.

"Now the president has said, 'Well, they're really not as strong,'" said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., "maybe this is just like weapons of mass destruction. ... When the facts are one way and their views are another, they just ignore the facts. And no one disputes that al Qaeda is gaining strength."

Reid also noted that the war was stretching troops dangerously thin. "It's well past time for a change of course in Iraq," Reid said. "The time to do this is now, not in September. We're told ... 'Good progress is being made.' How many times in the last 4½ years have we heard this? Too many to number."

Moral Obligation?

ABC News asked Reid whether the U.S. government -- including he and Schumer, who in October 2002 voted to authorize use of force in Iraq -- has a moral obligation to make sure that the Iraqi people are safe before the U.S. withdraws.

Reid said that according to a recent poll, "69 percent of Iraqis feel they are less safe because of the presence of Americans." Reid said that was directly related to the fact Iraqis "are all trying to kill our soldiers. That is a recipe to bring our troops home."

The Democratic leader added that was why "the Levin-Reed amendment is so critically important. … It transitions the mission within 120 days, and by the first day of May of next year, our troops will be out of there, our combat troops will be out of there. ...That's what the Iraqi people want and that's what American people want."

ABC News then asked Reid if he thinks the Iraqi people will be safer with U.S. troops out of the country.

"It is clear that the Iraqi people don't want us there," Reid said. "It is clear that there is now a state of chaos in Iraq. And it is up to the Iraqi people to make themselves safe. ... We can't do it. It's time the training wheels come off and they take care of their own country."

"With all due respect, senator, you didn't answer my question," said this reporter.

"This is not a debate," responded Reid.

"Will the Iraqis be safer?" asked this reporter.

"We're answering questions," Reid said, looking to call on someone else. "Anyone else have a question?"

Democratic Push for Troop Withdrawal

When asked about the details of the Reed-Levin amendment, Reid said he did not know how many troops would be left in Iraq after combat troops would be pulled by April 30, 2008.

"I don't know how many troops will be there," Reid said. "I've heard anywhere from 20,000 -- and now I've got, this is the highest number I've heard -- to 70,000." Whatever troops remain in Iraq, he said, can "only be involved in special operations, counterterrorism activities, training the Iraqis and protecting our assets that we have in Iraq."

Reid said he would vote against the amendment offered by Sens. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., to express the sense of the Senate that the president should implement the Iraq Study Group recommendations.

"They started doing the study well more than a year ago," he said. "It's been seven months since the report was given to us. And it calls for a lot of diplomatic measures. There's not a single tooth in that proposal. No, I can't vote for it."